Keeping calm and freaking out: more on the writing process

keep calm and write on2

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My name is Sherran and I am a PhD student. This post is part personal confession and part semi-academic musing on writing. I am swinging between keeping calm, writing on and trusting the process, and freaking out and believing the small voice in my head that says this thesis will never be done on time (although it will eventually, surely, be finished). It’s got me thinking a bit more about this thing we call ‘the writing process’ and how perhaps, while we acknowledge that it is iterative and non-linear and tough when we talk to students about it, we tend to maybe describe or present it as this ‘thing’ that can be cracked and that if you just crack it, writing will be easier and less painful and difficult. This is obviously not true, or helpful.

I have written about drafting and revising, and writing being an iterative rather than linear process here. It’s a messy business, for sure, whether you are writing something short or something long, like this mammoth of a Thesis that is currently weighing me down like many tons of heavy bricks. I have read ‘self-help’ thesis writing books, although admittedly only two of them because they made me cross and also made me feel a bit thick because I couldn’t really recognise my own muddled process in those texts. I felt, reading those books at the start of my PhD journey, like I had not cracked ‘it’ whatever ‘it’ was and therefore should perhaps not be registered for my PhD until I was ready (which clearly I was not, yet). Perhaps I would have found a more helpful book had I kept looking. (Barbara Kamler and Pat Thomson’s Pedagogies for Doctoral Supervision is quite excellent, but I only found this very recently).

I am not trying to cast scorn on the writers of these ‘How to write your Thesis and not go mad’ type books – there is value in having guides and advice because academic writing is difficult, and writers need help – but I am wondering how helpful they really are for doctoral students, especially those who are starting out or at quite an early point in their studies. Theresa Lillis argued a few years ago that ‘how to write an essay’ guides are actually only helpful to students who already know how write essays, and from my own limited experience I think the same is true of ‘how to write a PhD thesis’ guides. They are only really insightful and make proper sense, I suspect, when you are finished, or very close to being so, so that you can recognise some of yourself and your journey in what these guides are advising you to do. So where does that leave people who are not yet finished, and are finding their own process quite difficult?

Sadly, as with all kinds of different writing processes and journeys , and all kinds of different things that one can write, I do not think there are easy answers or compact and neat ways of presenting a ‘guide’ to writers that will make the process less… well, process-y; complicated, iterative, frustrating, at times enjoyable and at times maddening. A lot of emotional energy goes into all the reading and thinking and writing and rewriting and this amount is different for everyone. I think any notion of a process that can swing you from being a calm, focused writing machine to being a panicked and freaked out mess and back again needs to be cognisant of the different ways in which the process could progress and also end. We need to aim, in our work with student writers at every level, for a way of allowing them to muddle their way through their own particular writing journeys, and have, at the rights points along the way, spaces and places where they can talk about where they are and get help and advice that makes sense. The challenge is finding more spaces and places in higher education that can fulfill this weighty brief. In the meantime, I shall take my own advice, keep calm, and write on :-).

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